Forest Park officials moved a step closer to transferring 911 dispatch duties to a consolidated dispatch operation at the April 10 village council meeting, voting unanimously to approve a resolution terminating the Village of Forest Park Emergency Telephone System Board.
Village Administrator Tim Gillian said the move clears the way for the village's 911 calls to start going to the West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center (WSCDC) in early May.
The April 10 action is the latest step in a process that began in September when the village council capitulated to a state mandate and voted 4-1 to close its 911 center and join the WSCDC, which is also known as WESCOM.
Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the consolidated dispatch law on June 29, 2015, after it was passed by the Illinois General Assembly earlier that year. The law requires municipalities throughout the state with populations of less than 25,000 to consolidate their dispatch operations by mid-2017. Forest Park officials contended in September that the law unfairly targets municipalities with established 911 centers, primarily in suburban Chicago, by forcing them to merge operations with other communities to create a center or join an existing center.
Commissioner Tom Mannix's comments April 10 indicate he still holds that sentiment.
"This is a mandate forced down the throats of local governments by our illustrious General Assembly and governor," he said. "We as a village had no choice in the matter."
Noting that Forest Park risked losing $175,000 annually in 911 funding from the state, he added, "Our hand was forced" by what he called "an unfunded mandate."
Gillian explained that the $175,000 from the state helped with the estimated $1 million 911 dispatch operations budget when calls came directly to Forest Park and the village will continue to receive the financial benefit after joining WSCDC. But instead of going directly to the village, the $175,000 will be allocated to the WSCDC.
"The money will still come to us but through a back door," Gillian explained.
He also estimated the cost of 911 operations will be higher under the consolidated operation but for only the "first year or two."
"Eventually we'll see savings, allegedly," he added.
Looking for something positive, Commissioner Joseph Byrnes noted that the WSCDC had hired all of the Forest Park dispatchers who expressed interest in continuing employment. Gillian clarified that all dispatchers who were displaced have been either retained by the village in another capacity or hired by WSCDC.
"The greatest news for all of us is that none of our employees wound up losing a job," Mayor Anthony Calderone said.
In addition, Gillian said, the WSCDC will schedule at least one former Forest Park dispatcher on every shift.
"If there's something unfamiliar to them, one of our people will be there to help explain," he noted. "We felt that would be a big plus for our community and for our first responders."
Gillian said the changeover was planned for mid-April but coordinating "a ton of moving parts" has caused a delay.
"A lot of it has to do with training," he said. "Not only training our dispatchers who are leaving here to work at WESCOM but also to train their people who are coming in to work our overnight shifts."
He said the weather prevented Chicago Communications, the main contractor, from installing equipment on tops of municipal water towers.
"From what I understand, they're the company that does this work all over the state and everybody's doing it at the same time because of the state mandate," he added.
Gillian said calls to the village's non-emergency number will still be answered in Forest Park and the police station will be staffed around the clock seven days a week.
"Going through this process, the most important things for the village are that our residents will see no difference in the level of service they expect to receive in an emergency and, just as importantly, our first responders will see no difference in the level of service they expect to receive in an emergency," Gillian explained. "Realistically, when a Forest Park resident calls 911, they will see no difference. The call might even be answered by one of our current dispatchers since all five of our dispatchers have been hired by WSCDC.
"The only thing that might be different is the dispatcher asking what town an address is in because there are a few duplicate addresses in other suburbs served and Forest Park."
Calderone gave similar assurances that the changeover would be seamless.
"Our residents and business community are not going to experience any change in service," he said. "If you call 911, your call will be professionally answered and professionally attended to."
Gillian said existing partnership agreements with Oak Park and River Forest was a factor in the decision to go with WESCOM, as was the fact that Forest Park shares a majority of boundaries with those villages.